September 7, 2022

Massachusetts courts have 165 million reasons to continue virtual hearings

Massachusetts Trial Court computer systems are antiquated, and that inefficient technology was displayed in full force during the pandemic when many courts ceased most face-to-face interactions.

But Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law in early August a $165 million bill, “An Act to Improve and Modernize the Information Technology Systems and Capacities of the Judiciary,” that’s designed to upgrade technology and security in the courts.

“When courts do not have proper communication systems, let alone access to a reliable internet connection, it limits the judiciary’s ability to serve the people,” said state Rep. Michael S. Day, D-Stoneham, who serves as House chair of the Joint Committee on Judiciary and was a co-sponsor of the bill. “I am proud to have advanced this bill, which promises to enhance the courts’ efficiency. This will improve our residents’ access to justice by providing a more equitable approach to the law.”

‘Virtual courtrooms’ allow for better access 

The legislation allocates $95 million to create a system that allows for electronic filings of motions and other court documents, real-time docketing of cases and data access.

The funding will also allow courts to provide wireless internet access in the courthouses, as well as to install digital signage. There will also be safety features to protect and store all information.

More:Courthouse in disrepair

“Outdated technology makes navigating the court system frustrating for everyone, from criminal defendants to lawyers and litigants,” said Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, D-Newton. “The IT investments we authorize in this bill will improve the administration of justice by ensuring that the commonwealth’s courts operate more efficiently.”

A computer screen is shown at the Framingham-Natick District Clerk Magistrate's Office, Sept. 1, 2020. Gov. Baker has signed into law a bill that calls for spending $165 million to upgrade IT systems in state courts.

A portion of the money will go toward “equitable access for low-income residents,” which will allow for direct video conferencing during normal court hours.

$35 million for court security improvements

Another $35 million will be used to improve the court’s security, both physically and digitally. Along with a digital security system to protect the courts’ networks, the physical security hardware — including video surveillance, security scanning systems and communications equipment — will be replaced and upgraded.

Still another $35 million will be used to upgrade the court’s data storage systems, to secure private networks and to allow for the court to electronically imprint seals and to allow virtual signings of documents.

Clerk magistrates applaud funding

Locally, clerk magistrates think the funding for the improvements is much needed.

“I think it’s important that there will be upgrades,” said Brian Kearney, the Natick clerk magistrate and acting Framingham clerk magistrate. “It’s long overdue and I’m glad the Legislature did it.”

During the pandemic, most court business was conducted remotely. Kearney said that with better technology, that can continue. But without it, casesloads would become overwhelming once in-person restrictions were lifted.

More:Four things to know about the new court rules

Also, he said, it helps both attorneys and people who have hearings in court. He said people often spend hours using public transportation to get back and forth to court for a hearing that lasts just a few minutes.

“It’s been very beneficial to the bar and the defendants who work far from here,” said Kearney. “We’ve been able to conduct things remotely and it has been a big help.”

Austin Nagle, case specialist at the Framingham-Natick District Clerk Magistrate's Office, catches up on some work, Sept. 1, 2020.

Milford District Court Clerk Magistrate Thomas Carrigan said using Zoom since 2020 has been beneficial and he would be happy to see virtual courts expand and improve.

“I think the idea of a virtual courtroom is a really good one,” he said. “I personally like using video much of the time. The technology could be improved to make it even easier.”

In a statement, Senate President Karen Spilka said the money will allow the court to move forward in a world that is increasingly going digital.

Allison Rodriguez, sessions clerk at the Framingham-Natick District Clerk Magistrate's Office, is busy at work, Sept. 1, 2020.

“Our courts do invaluable work,” said Spilka, D-Ashland. “In an increasingly virtual and hybrid world, this legislation will support this work and allow our courts to continue to operate without interruption.”

A timeframe for when improvements will be implemented has not been set.

Norman Miller can be reached at 508-626-3823 or nmiller@wickedlocal.com. For up-to-date public safety news, follow Norman Miller on Twitter @Norman_MillerMW or on Facebook at facebook.com/NormanMillerCrime.

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